Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the person registering a marriage or civil partnership to attest the valid consent of both parties to the marriage or civil partnership before it is solemnized; and for connected purposes.
Last year, a constituent of mine, Daphne Franks, came to my advice surgery on a Saturday morning to tell me the horrifying story of her mother, Joan Blass. It was a story that I could hardly believe was possible in modern Britain, and it showed clearly that our marriage laws are sadly deficient in one important aspect, which has provided the reason for my Bill.
Born in April 1924 and widowed in 2008, Joan Blass lived next door to her daughter in the Gledhow district of my Leeds North East constituency. Towards the end of 2011, Joan was working in her garden one afternoon when she met Colman Folan, who struck up a conversation with her while she was standing at the gate from her garden to the street. She invited Mr Folan into her home for a cup of tea, and within one month of their first meeting, Colman Folan had moved into Joan’s house, taking up residence in her spare bedroom.
Joan had been diagnosed with vascular dementia in early 2011. At first it appeared that Colman was looking after her very well, although he seemed to be rather controlling and secretive. He also became increasingly hostile towards her family. He began to take Joan to visit her friends, as well as some relatives, all over the country, and in 2015, he and Joan flew to Budapest, even though by this time she was getting very frail and travelling made her stressed and exhausted. For the 10 days that they were away, Daphne, her daughter, had no idea where she was.
Sadly, on 26 March 2016, Joan Blass died of cancer, not long before her 92nd birthday. When her daughter saw her shortly after her death, she was still wearing her first husband’s wedding ring, but three days after her mother’s death, Daphne discovered that Colman and Joan had been married in a civil ceremony at Leeds town hall on 26 October 2015.
Hon. Members may imagine what a shock that discovery was to Daphne, her brother and the rest of Joan’s family. At the time of the marriage, Joan was 91 and Colman was 67. No family member or friend had been told about the secret marriage ceremony.
Daphne asked her solicitor and the police for help. She recalled that Colman had stopped even communicating with her or any other family member in 2014, for no obvious reason. Although Daphne continued to see her mother every day in her home, she always felt a little frightened of Colman.
Joan had made a will some years before meeting Colman, but Daphne discovered, to her surprise and shock, that a marriage automatically revokes a previous will. Colman now had complete control over Joan’s estate, in spite of the fact that Daphne had previously had power of attorney on behalf of her mother during her lifetime. The solicitor advised the family that it was almost impossible to annul a marriage after death, and that the only ground on which the marriage could be annulled would be if it could be proved that either partner had a lack of capacity to make a free and rational decision to marry. Unfortunately, no such evidence existed.
Further pain was caused to Joan’s family after her funeral wishes were denied by Colman. Joan had always made it clear that she did not wish to be buried, yet Colman insisted on it. The family’s solicitor advised that a single day’s hearing at the Leeds division of the High Court would settle the matter in Joan’s and the family’s favour, upholding the wishes of the deceased. However, after a four-day hearing that cost the family all their savings and assets—more than £200,000—the judge ruled in Colman’s favour because Joan had never written down her wishes. Furthermore, even if it had been possible to annul the marriage, an annulled marriage cannot overturn the revocation of a will through marriage. Parties in a marriage must understand the financial consequences of entering into that marriage, as we see in the Court of Protection judgment in E.J. v. S.D. in 2017.
I am presenting my Bill in an attempt to close some of the loopholes in the statutes governing marriage in this country. It is not good enough for a registrar to say that simply because one of the participants in a marriage ceremony was smiling at the time, consent was happily given. Much of the anecdotal evidence suggests that Joan had no idea she had ever been married to Folan, and there was clear evidence that her mental capacity was severely reduced in the last years of her life. However, there is no requirement for registrars to ensure that both parties in a marriage are aware of what they are doing when they enter into a contract to be married. There are protections under the law to prevent marriage under duress, but believing that duress is not present simply because one of the parties looks content does not mean that there is the mental capacity for consent.
My Bill would establish a number of improvements and protections against what I would call predatory marriage—a term already in circulation in Canada and now used by Joan’s family. First, the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Consent) Bill would establish that marriage should no longer revoke a previous will in every case—or, indeed, in any case. The majority of those affected are entering into second marriages and are from the older generation. Secondly, the Bill would establish that there should be better training for registrars to ensure that robust procedures for safeguarding vulnerable individuals are put in place. Mark Thomson, the Registrar General for England and Wales, has said that he wants to “modernise” registration procedures.
Thirdly, the Bill proposes that capacity to marry should be established via a simple questionnaire to alert registrars that an assessment of capacity may be needed before the ceremony is carried out, and that a medical capacity assessment may also be required. Simply smiling during a marriage ceremony should not be assumed to mean consent if there is no mental capacity to make such a decision in the first place. Fourthly, the Bill proposes that notices of intention of a marriage should be published on the internet so that families such as Daphne’s can discover much sooner that a marriage has taken place, or is to take place, even if their presence is not requested or wanted.
I would like to thank Daphne and Stephen Franks for bringing their very distressing case to my attention as their local Member of Parliament. I believe that the case has profound implications for many hundreds of other families across the country who may find themselves in a similar situation, and of course it goes without saying that this could affect many other Members. I would also like to thank Sarah Young, a solicitor and partner in the firm of Ridley & Hall in Leeds, who has specialised in marriage law, for her help and advice in bringing this to the attention of hon. Members, including, I hope, members of the Government and my colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench.
Question put and agreed to.
That Fabian Hamilton, Rachel Reeves, Alex Sobel, Tracey Crouch, Alec Shelbrooke, Preet Kaur Gill, Caroline Lucas, Sir Edward Davey, Karen Lee and Richard Burden present the Bill.
Fabian Hamilton accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 25 January 2019, and to be printed (Bill 296).